RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 14: Domenic Sena’s “Swordfish” (2001)


The Players…

John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle with Sam Shepard and Vinnie Jones.

The Story…

Either Gabriel Shear is a brilliant revolutionary or some nut who’s read one too many Ayn Rand novels. He’s determined to get his mitts on $9 billion in a secret DEA account so he can use it to fight terrorism, or so he claims. He may lack the hacking skills, but is exceptional in the HR department. So he recruits—read: blackmails—encryption expert (and supposedly reformed felon) Stanley Jobson to digitally crack the government mainframe. Okay, maybe Gabe’s read Snow Crash too often, rather.

The Rant…

It’s been a week.

I understand a lot of blogs delve into the personal. Almost all do. RIORI was decidedly not to be one of those kinds, outside of personal takes (and attacks) on questionable cinematic efforts. But I am not made of stone, and personal things happen. First and foremost, blogs are, quite simply, designed for venting. So, three things:

First, my wife is ill.

Second, Tommy Ramone died.

Third, you ever have a movie you wanted to like based on, say, vague reputation alone? I mean a movie that had repute for being…somewhat off kilter. Views of it were so divisive you told yourself, “Hell, I gotta check that out!” So contrarian you just had to make up your own mind, regardless of eventual irrefutable proof that the movie was indeed a bucket of doggie-doo? Ha! A challenge!

No? The hell you say.

A few months back I tackled a film that fell under that criteria. It was Lady In The Water courtesy of M Night Shyalaman (stop groaning). There was a film with such a wonky premise, it just had to be either misunderstood or just plain quirky, designed with the MST3K crowd in mind. You just wanted to like it, and like a clean wipe after battling it out with Taco Bell, it just did not come through. You’re welcome for the visual by the way.

Before I get even more obvious in my opinion about Swordfish, here’s what happens…

Stan Jobson (Jackman) is washed up. And in need of a wash, appropriately enough. Living low on the totem pole does not suit him, but it suits him better than lockdown in federal prison. Stan used to be one of the most feared computer hackers in Christendom, but as in cybercrime is wont to happen, you get sloppy, you get busted. Stan was sent away to Leavenworth for a stint. In the interim, he lost everything, home, life, freedom and family. Now he churns out a meager existence as a grease monkey for oil rigs. No glamour there, and a far cry from cyberspace to which he is permanently banned, lest he end up back in the clink.

One day, a curious stranger comes calling at his beater trailer home. A sultry woman named Ginger (Berry) with really great legs offers our downtrodden former cracker an offer. You want your life back, as well as your estranged daughter? Pay a call to her boss. He’s a man in need of Stan’s unique talents.

Gabe Shear (Travolta) is kind of a techrat. Better known as a cyberterrorist. An info broker of the blackest level. He’s got a not so hidden agenda of upending America’s data flow for the better of society, as far as he’s defined it. Stan’s the man to crack code faster than a jackrabbit on Mountain Dew. If Stan can bust into the US Treasury, the DoD, hell, the US airspace grid with nary a fart, then cracking for the “greater good” should pose no challenge. Under Gabe’s promises and afforded clout, maybe Stan can get his record expunged, his daughter back and perhaps a slice of the pie he could get under the aegis of the Bill of Rights rather than Honor Among Thieves that has done so well for him.

Sounds like Easy Street, right? But as with Gabe’s agenda, there are hitches, catches and bugs to unwire. As Stan jacks back into the matrix, he fast becomes a pawn in a greater game of chess that tosses zeroes and ones faster than the lives of average Americans or a madcap version of Pong. All in the name of the 21st Century balances of power…

Christ, this movie was stupid. I heard of its ill repute years ago. Perfect for Standard material.

Director Sena’s oeuvre has never been mired with the trappings of “smart cinema.” Mostly it’s been in defiance of it. And a lot of the time, his sh*t’s a good thing. Pure popcorn, lots of excess, just-don’t-think-too-hard-and-you’ll-have-fun kinda movies. It’s odd he never got slated to direct one of those endless Fast And Furious movies. But truth be told, I really liked his remake of Gone In 60 Seconds. Heck, the star of that flick wasn’t Nic Cage but the Shelby Cobra I’d give my left nut to own. However while 60 was an exercise in silly fun, Swordfish was just an exercise in silly.

There’s a very on-the-nose Matrix feel here. Like computers and their hacking are now still things of the proto-future. Look, I can jack into dozens of online sites, cleanly or otherwise. I’ve expanded my music collection a hundredfold simply by dropping twenty-five bucks. Once. Five years ago. If I’m gonna get busted by the FCC for claiming this (and I really can’t since I paid at the outset to do so, as well as sharing data I also pay into), I’m already at the end of a very, very long line of Internet abusers who can operate faster than the glacial pace of our government’s overseers who are still using pencils to rewind cassettes back into obedience for their Walkmans.


In other words, Swordfish’s idealization as future in motion was already outmoded by 2001. Hey, remember Napster? So it doesn’t hold up well with the Skype generation. And yes, I have a Skype account but never use it. Turns out I’m too ugly, even for cyberspace (probably because I still use the term “cyberspace”).


Swordfish has a forced sense of urgency. Tension in a story should be organic. The forces on the outside should nudge the protag into action naturally, not shove him into the head of the line like, say, in a movie queue. From the opening scene, as well as it’s executed (and it’s done very well, I must say), there should be no need for kick-in-the-balls action as Swordfish clumsily does, again and again. It folds out that all of the scenes of drama are bent over the railing with awkward action, like as if Sena suspected we needed a kick to follow the story (the cat-and-mouse tagging in the interrogation room scene being an ugly example) with splash that insults subtlety. It makes for a headache after a while.

Not to say that there aren’t some nice touches throughout the movie. For one, the pacing bounds along effoertlessly with very little hiccups. Another bit is that there is a plethora of post-millennial touchstones present, as if to deliberately set the stage (to become dated, though). Plus Vinnie Jones is a good actor on presence alone. It’s the thematic things that work well here. It’s called world-building, and essential to movies like this. Despite it’s now dated trappings, Swordfish uses a classic sci-fi device for a non-s/f movie: the world within a world. Better examples of this are The Matrix, Tron and to a quite lesser degree, Innerspace. Although Swordfish isn’t science-fiction, the sub-world of hacking and the black Internet and the culture that pervades it has a nice analog to folks who’d usually turn down a free ticket for, say, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. But future shock can only go so far to grab the audience’s attention.

By 2001, the Internet was as pervasive as athlete’s foot in a locker room, almost inescapable. Sena does provide a nice air of post-techno modernism, which does accent the paranoia and pleasure of computers reigning most of all of our lives. One scene I dug but don’t quite know why is Stan assaulting Gabe’s flashy banks of monitors and computers trying to hack code and gain access to where he should not be going. Jackman takes turns talking to himself, chain smoking and hitting liquor in a manic fashion reflecting the speed at which computer tech takes us. Then again, I might be looking to hard for smart in a film designed to be anything but.

Swordfish’s number one crime, despite wooden characters and really cheesy acting is the dialogue. The dialogue sucks. It’s laughable and clichéd and sounds first draft from the intern’s typewriter (yes, typewriter. That’s how low it gets). Save Travolta, and only very little, all the characters stumble over their lines like wading through a minefield with their laces tied together. This is especially bad on behalf of Jackman, whose US accent, by the way, fools no one. At least his was proto-Canadian in X-Men. Here he has no accentuation at all, just flatness. Cheadle runs a close second with his manic special agent jargon and tough guy posturing. I don’t even think Cheadle was having any fun chewing the scenery, and he’s usually a damn fine actor, eloquent, especially with delivering his lines.

And we’re not gonna stop whipping this horse. The whole damn story is derivative and stale. Ruined hero, chance for redemption, get life back, blah blah blah, clever rogue offering an offer that can’t be refused blah. It’s all been done before, and in much better ways. Sena thought that gussying up this trope with technobabble might make it seem hip. Listen, Hollywood gets in a few snippets of “cutting edge” tech speak and thinks they wrote the bible. Like tech, storylines can and will become obsolete—read: irrelevant—quite fast. Sena’d like to think he’s clever. He’s not.

Yep. Swordfish deserved The Standard treatment. Everything I had either heard or was implied turned out to be true. If you wanna rent this movie be prepared for a unique experience: a very trying high-octane action film that has plodding action tripped up by dumb acting and dumber dialogue. Yet it has good pacing. Go fig.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This film is stupid. Mildly entertaining, but still stupid.

Stray Observations…

  • For the record, I did not co-opt Travolta’s opening monologue as the foundation of RIORI. Just a happy coincidence. Great minds and all, but I’m not crediting Travolta’s.
  • “You’re f*cking up my chi.” The perfect bumper sticker for the 00’s.
  • A lifetime ago the film to see about proto-hacking into the “information superhighway” was 1992’s Sneakers. Good movie, but now unfortunately dated. Swordfish plays out a lot like Sneakers in spirit, except here pro hacking garners a lot more T&A.
  • Halle Berry’s tits. There ya go. Yer welcome. By the way, there’s a film going on. Strap up. Also, what was the book’s title?
  • “I can’t drive this thing!” “Learn.”
  • Did Dell bankroll this movie? Doesn’t it simply illustrate how frangible their products are?
  • The title Swordfish borrows from a Marx Brothers bit from the movie Horse Feathers. It pertains to the password in order to get into an exclusive club. Trivia!

Next Installment…

Witness Lindsay Lohan’s career plummet even deeper into The Canyons.


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